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Mary Callery’s Abstract Expressionist sculptures are often whimsical and clever, imbued with their maker’s sense of play, as well as evident skill. In 1955, the artist offered this insight into her work: “What should a sculpture be? . . . To be a work of art, to me, it must have its emotional life. One must like the thing, be attracted to it, or even be repulsed. It must work on you. Only then does it become living. That for me was the hardest thing to learn.”

Born into a well-to-do family in New York City, Mary Callery spent her childhood in Pittsburgh. She returned to her birthplace as a young adult, and, between 1921 and 1925, was enrolled at the Art Students League. Within that four-year span, she married and had a daughter, but left both her husband, a prominent attorney, and child behind when she moved to Paris in 1930. Her second marriage to an Italian textile magnate and art collector was equally short-lived.   

During a decade spent in Paris, Callery became acquainted with Henri Matisse, Pablo Picasso, Fernand Léger, and Alexander Calder. She frequently lent the use of her studio—located on a small street in the 14th arrondissement near other studios­—to fellow artists. With Nazism looming, Callery went back to New York in 1940 and immediately became affiliated with the Curt Valentin Gallery, highly regarded for its promotion of modernism. In 1945, Callery was invited to join the summer faculty of North Carolina’s Black Mountain College, whose ranks included with Josef Albers, Robert Motherwell, Lyonel Feininger, Ossip Zadkine, and Walter Gropius. 

Callery was versatile in a variety of materials that required abilities in both carving and casting. She used the former for early portraits and later employed steel and brass. At the midpoint of her successful career, she focused on slender, interweaving linear figures, drawing praise from critics like Art Digest writer Judith Kaye Reed who described Callery as “a modern who can pare substance down to slender, pencil-like forms without substituting sterile symbols for the fluid grace of living matter . . . .” Universal Limited Art Editions (ULAE), a collaborative printmaking studio based in New York, she was one of the first artists to create a print. Sons of Morning, a 1955­–1956 screenprint on handmade paper, depicts a frieze of lithesome figures not unlike her sculptures.

Over time, Callery abandoned figurative sculpture for more abstracted imagery. Several prestigious commissions came her way, including one for the United States pavilion at the Brussels World’s Fair in 1958 and a piece for the proscenium arch at the Metropolitan Opera House at Lincoln Center in 1966 (since removed). She was also known professionally as “Meric” Callery, a masculine name perhaps used to obscure her gender.

When Callery fled from Europe after the outset of World War II, she brought with her an extensive personal collection, which one reviewer claimed overshadowed her own career, and which Alfred Barr of the Museum of Modern Art described as having more Picassos than any other collection in America. In addition to Picasso, it included pieces by her other Parisian associates, as well as examples by Salvador Dali, Andy Warhol, and Jasper Johns.

In her later years, Callery maintained studios in New York, Huntington, Long Island, and Paris, where she died in 1977. Callery’s work is represented in distinguished museums such as the Museum of Modern Art, National Gallery of Art, and Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, among others.